John's Journal
Getting A Preseason Football Fix At Hopkins And Minnetonka8/9/2012
Seventeen high school football teams in Minnesota have gotten a head start by beginning practice this week in anticipation of playing Zero Week games Aug. 24 or 25. Those teams come in all sizes, from the smallest (Hancock, with a high school enrollment of 56 students) to Minnetonka (2,750).

This is only the first week of practice for those 17 teams, with everyone else beginning workouts next Monday. There are many more questions than answers for every football team at this point, but by the time Minnetonka and Hopkins meet in an Oct. 17 Lake Conference game that will end the regular season, most questions will have been answered.

I visited both of those teams during practice Thursday, which was their first day in full pads after three mandated days of conditioning drills. This is head coach Dave Nelson’s 11th season at Minnetonka (which won the Class 5A state title in 2004), and Nelson (pictured) has molded the Skippers into one of the top programs in the state; they have finished 8-3 in two of the past three seasons. Hopkins was 3-6 last year, after having won eight, seven and seven games in the previous three seasons. Hopkins coach John DenHartog is in his eighth season with the Royals.

As expected, optimism reigns for both teams. Hopkins senior wide receiver/free safety Zac Merie told me, “I think we’re going to have a pretty good season. Last year wasn’t our best season, but our senior class is really strong. We had a lot of junior starters last year and we’re expecting big things.”

The words of Minnetonka senior defensive end Mike Redmond were similar: “I think we’ll be better than last year. The coaches said we have a lot of talent in this group and they’re saying this could be the best team they’ve seen since 2004, even better than 2004.”

Baseball fans know that name … Mike Redmond was a catcher for the Twins from 2004 to 2009. But Minnetonka’s Mike Redmond wasn’t the only familiar name I ran across Thursday. During practice at Hopkins, I interviewed a football player named Jared Allen. But this wasn’t THAT Jared Allen.

The Jared Allen most fans know is the defensive end who plays for the Vikings. This Jared Allen is a senior linebacker for the Hopkins Royals. I said to him, “Hey! You’re supposed to be in Mankato!” He graciously laughed at my joke … which he probably heard for about the 900th time.

Hopkins and Minnetonka are on the Zero Week plan because they have scheduling problems. They are in the Lake Conference along with Wayzata, Eden Prairie and Edina. That’s only five teams, which means those schools need to find four non-conference opponents each year. Minnetonka will open the season at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wis. (located between Milwaukee and Madison) and Hopkins will play at Milwaukee’s Alexander Hamilton on Sept. 14. Hopkins will open the season with an Aug. 25 home game against Episcopal of Houston, Texas.

A big change this season is the addition of a new division; Class 6A consists of the largest 32 schools in the state. But that does nothing to solve the problems of filling schedules.

“It’s fine, it’s a neat deal,” DenHartog (pictured) said of being in 6A. “One of my biggest concerns is always the schedule part of it. It doesn’t improve our schedule. I’d love for that to come up. This year we go to Milwaukee and that costs some money that we’d rather spend on shoulder pads and helmets. We got lucky with Episcopal from Houston coming up. I’d love to see us come up with something where we could get a full schedule.”

One suggestion for filling schedules – which is a problem around the state for schools of all sizes – is having teams play their section opponents during the regular season. Nelson favors that approach.

“It might ultimately come down to section football, where our section is our conference,” he said. “If this thing doesn’t get fixed, down the road I think that’s what’s going to happen.

“Our league is a really good league, but with only five teams it doesn’t seem like a league. I was always a conference proponent but I would just as soon go to sections. I know a lot of guys like their league and they have history and tradition, but to me it makes sense. I think that’s where we’ll be headed if something doesn’t change.”

Other tidbits from Thursday’s football visits …

--Hopkins’ Merie (left in this photo, with Allen on the right) on the opposition: “The Lake Conference is always good. I’d say our biggest competitor is going to be Minnetonka. Eden Prairie and Wayzata are not as strong, we’re stronger. Minnetonka is definitely going to be the toughest game.”

--DenHartog, assessing his team: “We’re not real big but I think we’ll continue to be very athletic. I think we’ve got a lot of tough-minded kids here. Our leadership group is a bunch of tough kids. I think we’ll come out and be a little more hard-nosed than we’ve been in the past. We’ll spread it around and try to use our speed, get our guys in open spaces. That’s our game. If I had my wish I’d rather be a power football running team, but that’s just not what we’re blessed with. We are blessed with a lot of speed and athletic ability and it’s fun to see them run around.”

--Minnetonka senior safety/receiver Malcolm Moore suffered a broken foot in a passing league six weeks ago. Nelson said he doesn’t expect Moore to be available for the season opener. “We hope to get good news soon. He works in the pool and today he got on a bike for the first time. We just hope it heals right and he doesn’t come back and be limping again a week later.”

--Minnetonka senior guard Jack Bixler on Zero Week practices: “It’s pretty much the same thing. We’re coming, working hard, trying to get ready the best we can. It’s just a week earlier, it’s no different in our minds.”

--Minnetonka’s Redmond on the Skippers’ top rivals: “I think it’s a tie between Eden Prairie and Wayzata. Last year we lost to Eden Prairie in the section championship. That was no fun. So I feel like there’s a bigger target for us to take them out this year. They’re ranked 20th in the nation, which is cool, but they haven’t proved anything yet. Everyone’s even.”

--First freebie of the season: A member of the Minnetonka staff smiled and handed me a nice cold can of Diet Coke. It tasted great.

--See photo galleries from Hopkins and Minnetonka on the MSHSL Facebook page.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 2
*Miles John has driven: 171
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
Help Me Make My Plans For Monday's Big Day8/8/2012
As we get closer to Monday and the start of fall practices around the state, I am working on a coverage plan for the first day of workouts.

This statement has been posted on the MSHSL Facebook page ...

"The MSHSL's John Millea will choose one school to report from on Monday, the first day of practice for fall sports teams. He will spend much of the day at that school, watching workouts, interviewing coaches and athletes, shooting photos/video and producing a full report for John's Journal and this Facebook page. Does anyone have any suggestions on a school for him to visit????"

I am always open to suggestions, so jump on Facebook and, uh, tell me where to go.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 0
*Miles John has driven: 108
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
Welcome to 2012-13 … It’s Time To Begin Anew 8/5/2012
In most schools around our state, Aug. 13 is the day when a new year of activities will begin. That’s because Aug. 13 is the day when practices can start for fall sports. But for 17 football teams, the new year begins a week early … on Aug. 6.

Those 17 teams will play Zero Week games on either Aug. 24 or Aug 25. The rest of Minnesota’s football teams will begin their season – practice and games – one week later. Zero Week was instituted last year in order to assist teams that have problems filling an eight-game regular-season schedule.

Next Monday, practice fields, courts and pools all over our state will be buzzing with activity. By then, soccer, cross-country, girls’ tennis, girls’ swimming and diving, girls’ volleyball and football teams will all be in full swing.

I’m starting to map out my plans for preseason stories, and I’m always happy to get feedback and ideas. If you’ve got a great story brewing in your school, your conference or your area, drop me an email.

It’s time for the fun to begin!

*Schools/teams John has visited: 0
*Miles John has driven: 108
(*During the 2012-13 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn
Sneaking A Peek At Zero Week ... And A Little Time Off7/16/2012
Happy summer, everybody! We're in the midst of another Minnesota summer and a new school year will be here before we know it.

Practices for fall sports will begin Aug. 13, with the exception of a few football teams that will start workouts one week earlier and play Zero Week games. The football season will open with 10 Zero Week games Aug. 24-25. Two Minnesota teams will travel to Wisconsin and one will host a team from Texas.

I'm ducking out for some summer vacation escapades. So amid thoughts of quiet shores, big fish and afternoon naps, we present the schedule of Zero Week football games ...

Friday, Aug, 24
(All games at 7 p.m.)
Holy Angels at Edina
St. Paul Humboldt at Columbia Heights
Mesabi East at Eveleth-Gilbert
Minnetonka at Arrowhead (Hartland, Wis.)
Lewiston-Altura at Cochrane-Fountain City, Wis.
Bertha-Hewitt at Hancock
Minnesota Valley Lutheran at United South Central
Wheaton at Underwood

Saturday, Aug. 25
Houston (Texas) Episcopal at Hopkins, 1 p.m.
Russell-Tyler-Ruthton at Pipestone, 7 p.m.
All The Miles, All The Memories … Another Year Is In The Books7/3/2012
The miles? Yes, the miles add up on this job. I have been an MSHSL staffer through two full school years now and have driven more than 20,000 miles around Minnesota in pursuit of great stories, new friendships and the occasional concession-stand meal.

The miles come and go, but the memories are forever. And 2011-12 was a remarkable stretch of events and people. There were stories of coaches inspiring their athletes, celebrating success and weeping when the end – of the season or their career – finally arrived. Memories of remarkable athletes like Carlie Wagner and Grant Besse doing remarkable things. Memories of young people fighting through adversity, whether it be Beth Broschofsky returning to running or Hanna Hughes supporting her teammates from a wheelchair.

Let’s look back at 2011-12 …

Best Individual Effort/Postgame Scene: Grant Besse scored five goals, three of them shorthanded, in Benilde-St. Margaret’s 5-1 victory over Hill-Murray in the Class 2A boys hockey state championship game. As the victorious Red Knights left the ice, the wheelchair-bound Jack Jablonski was waiting in the locker room. Jake Horton, who was carrying the first-place trophy, yelled, “Hey Jabbers, I’ve got somethin' for you!” The last person off the ice was coach Ken Pauly, who yelled, “Jabby! Jabby baby! How ya doin’ 13?!” And then the locker room doors were closed and the Red Knights had some special time to themselves.

Best Halftime Conversation: Teen Girl A: "Is the game over?" Teen Girl B: "No, it's halftime." Teen Girl A: "I don't understand football."

Best American Story: Adalberto Villalobos is a respected soccer official who grew up in Costa Rica but has lived in the St. Cloud area for years. After becoming a U.S. citizen last year, here’s how he described hearing the anthem at his first soccer game last fall: “A young lady sang it beautifully, and I found myself turning so the other officials wouldn’t see me getting teary-eyed. Emotions took over and it hit home; it’s for real, I’m here, I’m part of it.”

Nicest Peace Officer: After watching a volleyball match between Lake Park-Audubon and Climax/Fisher in the Climax gym (where the North Dakota flag hangs alongside the Minnesota flag), I was driving to Thief River Falls. I just may have been exceeding the speed limit by a tiny bit, but the fellow who pulled me over in Red Lake Falls was as friendly as they come. Thanks for the warning, officer!

Best Musical Insight: (Overheard at halftime of a football game while Michael Jackson’s 1972 version of “Rockin’ Robin” was played on the sound system): “This is old music. But I’m only 12 and a half.”

Best Teamwork By Two Teams: In memory of Wabasha-Kellogg’s Cole Younker, who had died in a traffic accident, the football teams from Wabasha-Kellogg and Southland stood together as their captains planted a tree (pictured) in Cole’s memory just prior to kickoff in the season opener.

Eater’s Choice Award (Single Item): The pregame goodies on a football Friday at Minneota included a rare find … the greatest roast beef sandwich I have eaten anywhere.

Best Early Morning Question: It was 6:58 a.m. and I was entering the Metrodome for a day of football playoff games. A security guard, seeing me with two backpacks full of essential journalism gear -- and a big bag of candy for my press box colleagues – asked, “Did you run away from home?”

Best Debut on the Big Stage: In January I watched sophomore Carlie Wagner of New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva score 39 points in a basketball win over Goodhue, after which Goodhue coach Josh Weime said, “She does things that we never see.” When NRHEG got to the state tournament, everybody saw what Wagner can do. She set a state tournament single-game scoring record with 48 points in the third-place game and also set a three-game tournament record with 112 points.

Best Tribute to a Coach/Choir Director: From 1952 until 1992, John Hansen was the head football coach and choir director at Osseo High School. When the Osseo football stadium was renamed in his honor, former players as well as singers gathered in his honor. The national anthem never sounded better.

Best Homecoming Parade: The Red Rock Central parade (left) wound through the village of Lamberton as citizens and pupils watched and cheered. A couple firetrucks, the football team, cheerleaders, faculty and a beautiful fall day in a small town … it didn’t last very long but it was as much fun as I had all year.

My Favorite Runner: Pierz junior Beth Broschofsky was all smiles when we chatted after a cross-country race in Royalton. After surviving cancer and having a metal rod replace the humerus in her right upper arm, Beth was running again. She has a beautiful smile.

Best Rivalry Renewal: When the teams from St. Paul Academy and Blake met on the football field, it was the latest chapter in a series that began 100 years earlier.

Most Inspirational Athlete: When Hannah Hughes of Rochester Lourdes was going through treatment for bone cancer, her friends and soccer teammates remained at her side. And Hannah was at their side when the Eagles played in the state semifinals. It didn’t matter that her right leg and pelvic area had been amputated … she was still part of the team. “I have never seen Hanna with a frown on her face,” said teammate Rachel Saltness. “Every day she has a smile on her face and she makes the best of every situation.”

Eater’s Choice Award (Multiple Items): Fulda boosters served a terrific meal, with your choice of a burger or brat with chips, drink and a homemade cookie or bar for six bucks. Best deal in town.

Most Focused Athlete: Little Falls’ Ben Newman excels in football as well as hockey despite having vision in just one eye. He lost the vision in his right eye as the result of an accident when he was eight months old, but “I don’t notice it at all,” he said. “It’s just like nothing’s wrong.”

Toughest Rivalry: When Lakeville South High School opened in 2005, some of the coaches from Lakeville High (which became Lakeville North) moved to the new school and some stayed put. After North and South met on the football field last fall, North assistant coach Bob Kovich looked toward the coaches from South and said, “Those guys are my best friends. I hate this week.”

Best Tribute to a Friend: At the girls state tennis tournament, the team from Waseca wore matching pink ribbons in their hair and pink T-shirts (pictured) that had “Play Like a Princess” printed on the back. On the left sleeve was printed the word “Ab-dub” and a little crown. It was all in honor of Abigail “Abby” “Ab-dub” Claire Wendland, 16, who had died recently in an automobile accident. Abigail’s favorite color was pink and her nickname was Princess.

Best Coin Toss: Prior to a football game between Edina and Minnetonka, referee Pat Whalen said to the team captains, “Fellas, I’m going to show you all the athletic ability I have left in this body and catch this coin. If I drop it, we’re going to do it again.” He nailed it on the very first try.

Best Final Interview: When Bob Brink retired after 51 years of coaching boys basketball (the last 42 at Rocori), the end came in the state quarterfinals. Tears welled in his eyes as he thought about his players. “They wanted to win it for…” He was unable to say the word “me” because … well, because it was never about him.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 720
*Miles John has driven: 9,235
(*During the 2011-12 school year)

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn